New Quantum Technologies can Ensure Secure Data Encryption

For the second consecutive year, a research team from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory at the Department of Energy headed a demonstration hosted by EPB—a community-based utility and telecommunications firm that caters to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

ORNL quantum researchers, from left, Brian Williams, Phil Evans and Nick Peters work on their QKD system. Image Credit: Genevieve Martin/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

The researchers used an isolated part from EPB’s fiber-optic network to test quantum-based technologies that can potentially enhance the cybersecurity, efficiency, and longevity of the country’s power grid. In association with their new industry partner, Qubitekk, the scientists, among other achievements, significantly increased the range that can be covered by these resources.

The researchers tested quantum key distribution (QKD) systems that leverage the power of quantum mechanics to encrypt messages and validate data through a secret “key.” This key uses private encryption techniques to safely convey the “locked” data from one QKD system to another via a “trusted node.” The trusted node is practically insensitive to cyber attacks.

This technology relies not on the mathematical laws that govern modern computer security but on the physical laws of quantum mechanics that do not change over time. As a result, we can make security assurances that will remain true indefinitely because they do not rely on assumptions.

Raymond Newell, Lead, Quantum Communications Team, Los Alamos National Laboratory

The previous year, EPB, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory showed that QKD systems can seamlessly operate together, in spite of having different fundamental software and hardware parts. This represents a major step toward ultimately integrating the QKD into the grid on a national level. Incidentally, the grid supplies electricity to buildings across the United States.

The QKD systems could be used to guarantee the compatibility of equipment available from different vendors who support utility operators and owners.

Having demonstrated interoperability, we can now show the benefits of an extended range that covers a larger territory and simply gets further than would have been possible with a single system operating on its own,” added Newell.

During the demonstration this year, the scientists positioned their systems as well as a new system made by Qubitekk—a QKD manufacturer and developer—in electrical substations based in Chattanooga. Such substations were linked by the piece of EPB’s fiber-optic network reserved for testing purposes, and acted as pitstops that enabled every system to transmit a key to the subsequent system.

Due to extreme distance restrictions, QKD was earlier prevented from becoming a feasible addition to present-day grid management methods; however, this test demonstrated that three discrete systems can finish a real-world relay of quantum keys throughout the city.

Successfully demonstrating QKD performance in a real environment helps establish the feasibility of this technology for protecting critical energy delivery infrastructure,” stated Nicholas Peters, the Quantum Information Science (QIS) group leader at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Preserving the QKD systems in substations—that is, boxes surrounded by cameras, fences, buildings, and other security measures—offered both physical and cyber protection.

QKD is unique because it can detect the presence of any eavesdropper who attempts to intercept and copy information,” stated Team Lead Phil Evans from Oak Ridge National Laboratory QIS Quantum Communications. “These interceptions show up as errors and we throw them away before they can leak any key information.”

Apart from extending the physical distance across which the QKD systems can interact, the trusted node technique is also advantageous to utility providers by enabling more substations to be added to the quantum network. Consequently, the control center can interact and safely issue crucial instructions to all the substations at the same time.

With this technology, utilities get better cybersecurity without introducing administrative headaches. It is a set-and-forget solution that simplifies cybersecurity operations for utilities.

Duncan Earl, President and Chief Technology Officer, Qubitekk

Today’s smart grid communications exploit present-day traditional technologies, but the inclusion of private quantum networks would not only improve cybersecurity but would also enhance the durability of critical resources.

While day-to-day devices, like laptops and smartphones, often need to be replaced every few years, especially when the operating software is no longer supported, substituting generators or substations that usually would be costly and impractical.

In principle, QKD systems integrated into the grid would stay secure for decades, matching or exceeding the service life of the physical infrastructure,” added Peters.

While longevity and cybersecurity are crucial to QKD performance, more improved operational efficiency is equally important. For instance, portions of the grid supporting renewable energy sources, like solar power, rely on the connately changing position of clouds and the Sun, and the QKD systems can help distribute responsibility across other parts of the grid to offset the varying output and, at same time, reap the rewards of green energy.

With one of the most sophisticated smart grids available in the nation, EPB has become an innovator in grid studies across longstanding associations as well as new demonstrations that test quantum technology at unparalleled levels.

We are proud of our partnership with DOE, ORNL and LANL and that EPB could host this quantum-based security field test for this simulation. These smart grid demonstrations help us develop promising technology to help protect America’s electric grid from cyberattacks.

Steve Morrison, Director of Information Security, EPB

The researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory continue to create quantum technologies—a few of which have been commercially licensed, while others are in the initial phases of testing—and both laboratories have planned to continue their association with EPB.

We’ve found them to be an excellent partner,” added Evans. “They have a very forward-looking mindset and have built a fantastic fiber-optic network that includes the isolated dark fiber test bed they have let us use for many experiments. We could not have gotten this far without the people at EPB.”

Gradually, the researchers are hoping to deploy additional QKD resources in the national grid system to observe the same improvement on a relatively larger scale.

The study was financially supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response. So far, the Office has created and transitioned more than 35 technologies to the energy industry by collaborating with industry, national laboratories, vendors, cybersecurity, and academia.


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